WWOOFing in France: Day 9-22

by kangcuzzi

:Here I am, sitting in a surfing hostel in the middle of San Sebastian, wondering how on earth I’ll be able to give this post any justice. Yesterday we said goodbye to two weeks’ worth of early mornings, long walks, hearty food and heartwarming company, in an exact echo of the circumstances that first greeted us at Cahors station. It was surreal to be back as we were, with huge bags strapped to our bags and eyes dazed from exhaustion, despite the fact that the previous two weeks were instrumental in fomenting interesting thoughts, feelings and reflections.

To make a long story short, my experience on the farm was exactly what I needed in an otherwise jam-packed, fast-paced summer of novelty.

Where do I begin? Perhaps it’d be best to describe what WWOOFing actually is.

Essentially, WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is an organisation of, well, organic farms all across the world. The way one finds a host is not unlike the Airbnb method, which means I had to contact several different farms in France before receiving a thumbs-up from the one we eventually stayed at. For two weeks we worked from eight in the morning to lunchtime, in exchange for all three meals and free accommodation. Work included weeding the garden (which yielded many a poetic metaphor on the human condition), planting seeds, harvesting potatoes and onions, painting gates, helping out in the kitchen (crushing walnuts, peeling garlic, etc), and generally being helpful when needed.

Given that our wonderful hosts, Catherine and Wolfgang, run a subsistence farm and only sell surplus produce to close neighbours, we didn’t have as much work as we expected; some days we’d end at 11AM, and sit around the dining room table playing board games whilst waiting for lunch. On one of the days, work was cancelled altogether, and Edward (the English WWOOFer), Joseph and I went on a road trip-cum-picnic to a nearby town named Rocamadour courtesy of Catherine’s daughter Barbara.

But those are the objective facts. What the WWOOF website won’t tell you is this:

Waking up, bleary-eyed, at 7.15 in the mornings and conversing with Edward as we share the one sink in the communal bathroom. The arm workout that comes with slicing thick rye bread for breakfast. Catherine’s delicious homemade quince jam, of which there are two hundred jars in the pantry but not enough to fulfil my soul. The border collies, a mother and her daughter, the latter of which is a veritable vampire and leeches all the love. Playing Dame Chinoise (Chinese Checkers) with Wolfgang almost everyday and not winning once… but coming close.

During the long and sunny French afternoons, we had so much time to do anything we wanted: go swimming in the ‘natural pool’ (which meant fish and algae and flowers and all the things my inner city girl was initially unnerved by but grew to love), go cycling to St. Cirq-Lapopie (a beautiful neighbouring town with buildings nestled amongst the rocks above the Lot Valley), go running on the endless country roads, walk to Concots, hand-make wool pouches with a lot of hot water and punching, read, write, think, play Dame Chinoise, think about winning Dame Chinoise, come up with strategies for Dame Chinoise, etc.

And of course, all these activities were punctuated by the most filling three meals I’ve had in a long time, as Catherine and Wolfgang, being the amazing chefs they are, prepared enough garden salads, pizzas, empanadas, pastries, soups, pies and more to feed three villages. The food was so good — and so fresh — I finally overcame my mortal hatred of tomatoes and now eat them like chips.

On our penultimate day I prepared bibimbap in an attempt to share a taste of Korean culture, and although the cooking method involved a lot of improvisation I’d like to think it was a success. I also successfully baked a vegan banana-chocolate cake the day Edward (who is vegan) was in charge of cooking lunch, and now I am proud to claim that I no longer improvise with baking recipes in the atrocious way I used to (i.e. consider baking powder and soda bicarbonate to be one and the same thing).

There are so many things I could write, but I feel my words could not fully capture my gratitude for the amount of care we received on the farm. Wolfgang and Catherine were always so generous with what they had, and Edward was the best conversationalist I could’ve asked for: long hours of weeding were only made better when we talked about good books and music. There were also other figures we came across during our two-week stay whose impact will stay with me for a while: Philippe, a family friend who taught me a nice sampling of colloquial French and wrote lovely letters; Jeremy and his girlfriend, two seriously gifted neighbours in whose musically adorned house we spent an entire evening improvising music; André, a mustachioed, grungy neighbour who visited Hong Kong several times and had a lot of stories to share; Maxime and Philippe, a son-and-father duo whose presence at the dinner table and poolside offered great comic relief.

Beyond our little farm on Mas de Nuc, when we visited our headmaster Dr. Faunce’s home in a nearby hamlet, we were met with great hospitality and warmth from his close friends Jean-Marie and Joelle. Jean-Marie also runs a WWOOFing farm, and when we visited Nadal he took us on his electric car to see his horses, cows, wheat fields and strawberry fields, where he let us eat his organic strawberries straight from the stem. (Suffice to say, they were some of the most delicious strawberries I’ve had in a while.)

To believe it all happened.

Two weeks have gone by in a blur and now we’re in the neighbouring land of Spain. A part of me is incredibly relieved to finally be able to understand what everyone is saying, but also slightly mortified by my tendency to confuse French and Spanish at the most inconvenient of times (why, oh why, do ‘oui’ and ‘sí’ have to rhyme?). Another part of me is equally, if not more relieved, to know that only one week sits between Spain and my bedroom back in Hong Kong, where I’ll finally be able to unpack, unwind, and take a break.

Having said that, the farm has rejuvenated me greatly. Upon my return to Hong Kong, there are many things I plan to do to apply the wonderful things I’ve learnt at Mas de Nuc: attempt to eat more locally, lower my carbon footprint, cook for my family, do my chores (!), live simply and, above all, be more selfless.

Some fitting, albeit slightly belated, realisations just before I head off on the big and burdensome journey known as adulthood.